Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Westerns

The Western genre may have, by and large, fallen out of favor with moviegoing audiences quite some time ago, but filmmakers keep trying to bring it back. With a new remake of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ in theaters this week, let’s look back at some of our favorite Westerns.

Shannon Nutt

Clint Eastwood’s 1992 “anti-Western” (also frequently called his “revisionist Western”) ‘Unforgiven‘ was awarded with four Oscars, including a well-deserved first Best Director win for Eastwood. However, am I the only one who DIDN’T like ‘Unforgiven’ upon the first viewing? I confess that I didn’t get the film at all way back in 1992. I saw it on opening weekend, and I got the general consensus that audiences felt the same way. (Heck, even the great Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel panned the movie – although Ebert, in a rare occurrence, went back later and updated his original 2 1/2 star review to 4 stars, claiming he was wrong and placing it on his “Great Movies” list). I think the reason is that Eastwood had a history of Western movies and it’s hard to go into ‘Unforgiven’ without certain expectations, all of which the film defies.

Today, Eastwood is considered one of our best filmmakers, but even though ‘Unforgiven’ wasn’t the first movie he helmed, his work was never taken all that seriously by his Hollywood peers beforehand. This is the film that helped put him on the map as notable director, and it remains perhaps his best work.

Tom Landy

When I was much younger, I actually despised Westerns, so much so that whenever my parents watched one on TV, I made some excuse to leave the room. However, as I got older, I started to appreciate the genre a little more. I’d say this was largely due to one film in particular: ‘Quigley Down Under‘.

Tom Selleck stars as an American sharpshooter who takes on a mustache-twirling Alan Rickman and his entire army of henchmen in Australia. Yes, parts of the movie are pretty cheesy at times, but between the engaging action scenes, the energetic music, the beautiful scenery, and the performances by its two main stars (Selleck makes a wonderful hero and Rickman gleefully hams it up), this movie is just pure 100% entertainment for me.

Honorable mention goes to ‘Tombstone‘, a slicker Western featuring Kurt Russell and an in-his-prime Val Kilmer as the legendary Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. This is another great film. It’s well-acted, well-paced, and it explodes with the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral. That’s definitely one of my all-time favorites, too.

Brian Hoss

I think I could turn up a dozen Westerns that I think are top shelf, and that’s without turning to other genre films that are really just thinly veiled Westerns (like ‘Outland’). For this Roundtable, I’m tapping into ‘The Cowboys‘ from 1972, starring a 65-year-old John Wayne.

As is the Western tradition, the plot is very simple, and it’s pretty clear who’s right (John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Brown, and the kids trying to be capable cow herders) and who’s evil (Bruce Dern, who in spite of evilness manages a great wolf in sheep’s clothing introduction). Frankly, despite being macho, violent, and not terribly progressive, I think this is one of the few Westerns that ought to appeal to all ages in a memorable and entertaining way.

Luke Hickman

When I was growing up, the Western genre was pretty much dead. ‘Tombstone’ and ‘Unforgiven’ ultimately came around, but I was too young to see them when they were new. My parents didn’t watch many, so my love for Westerns didn’t really start until I was a young adult and sought them out on my own. It took a great new Western for me to realize how awesome the genre can be.

Just months after getting married, my wife and I went to a press screening of James Mangold’s ‘3:10 to Yuma‘ remake. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale were pretty hot at the time, so the movie had a lot of potential. I expected it to be good, but not as good as it was. I walked out of the theater with my jaw on the floor. It completely swept me up. From the father-son/good-vs.-evil punch-packing story, to the gorgeous cinematography and score. I absolutely loved it. Immediately following that screening, I started jumping into classics like ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’. I even got into newer Westerns like ‘Open Range’. Until the ‘3:10 to Yuma’ remake, I was indifferent to the genre, but now it’s one of my very favorites.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

The Searchers‘ isn’t just my favorite Western. John Ford’s 1956 classic easily ranks among my favorite films of any genre. Much of its strength is owed to a daringly unconventional performance by John Wayne. His Ethan Edwards is hardly some gallant hero. He’s a man consumed – propelled by an obsessive quest and overwhelmed by his violent hatred of an entire people. Ethan isn’t content to just kill a Comanche warrior, for instance. Preying on the dead man’s beliefs, he shoots out his eyes so that the warrior’s spirit will never find peace.

Though Ethan walks among the living, any sort of lasting peace eludes him as well. His refusal to let go of his fury or past decisions irrevocably prove to be hopelessly isolating. Having witnessed the smoldering remains of what was once his brother’s family, he’s devotes many years of his life to an obsessive, seemingly futile quest to find his niece that the rampaging Comanche took with them. He doesn’t seek out Debbie to rescue her, at least not in any traditional way. Having been tainted by the Comanche, Debbie is no longer his blood. Maybe Ethan sees it as a mercy killing as opposed to the vengeance he craves for those who butchered his family, but if he has his way, she’ll be dead just the same.

The substitute families encountered throughout the course of his journey are almost immediately disregarded. Ethan is too obsessed with the past to look forward to any sort of future. He doesn’t see the Comanche warrior Scar as the reflection of himself that he truly is. The romantic imagery of the Cavalry is shattered when we see them as bloodthirsty and merciless as the Comanche that slaughtered the Edwards. He barely tolerates the presence of Martin, a young man who’s only one-eighth Native American but one-eighth too much for Ethan.

Although Ethan isn’t the same man at the end of the film as he is at the outset, he remains every bit as alone, symbolized in one of the most iconic shots in cinema.

Josh Zyber

For many years of my life, I had a great disdain for musicals and Westerns. Of the musicals, I could never wrap my mind around the unreality of people suddenly bursting into song. (Meanwhile, movies with alien spaceships or caped men in spandex tights flying through the air were totally plausible in my worldview.) Westerns just seemed like a stale and dead genre, something only suitable for old people to watch. My only real experience with them was the boredom of sitting in the room while my grandpa watched reruns of ‘Gunsmoke’ or hokey John Wayne movies on TV. It took a very long time for me to overcome these prejudices, and I’m still woefully ignorant of the classics of either genre.

One of the first Westerns I remembered actually liking was Lawrence Kasdan’s ‘Silverado‘. The movie was something of a throwback when it was released in 1985, and played as if it were ticking off genre elements from a checklist: a jailbreak, a wagon train, a stampede, a square dance, a saloon brawl, dirty rustlers, a crooked sheriff, gunfights and a showdown in the center of town. But it had a great cast, an irreverent attitude, and a focus on being a purely fun adventure. It also has a real star-making performance from a young Kevin Costner, whose turn as a rambunctious gunslinger is still one of his best roles.

I’ll also stand up to defend Kasdan’s flawed but underrated ‘Wyatt Earp‘. The film had the misfortunate of being overshadowed by the (admittedly, more action-packed and entertaining) ‘Tombstone’, which was released a few months earlier. It’s over-long and overly-earnest, and feels like a drag when directly compared to the rowdy fun of the other Wyatt Earp picture. Critics at the time tore into it and the movie was a big box office flop. However, on its own terms and with a little patience, it’s a finely-crafted, classical Western, and didn’t deserve the bum rap it got.

What are some of your favorite Westerns? Tell us in the Comments.

26 comments

  1. NJScorpio

    I’m going to have to give a shout out to Gene Wilder’s ‘The Frisco Kid’. Not the best western, nor the most traditional western, but I find it fun and charming.

  2. Chris

    Tombstone is by far the best Western AND has the most quotable lines. In no other movie on earth would “I’m your huckleberry” sound so badass

  3. Chris B

    I don’t really care too much for westerns from the 1950’s. They seem too squeaky clean and campy most of the time. One I do love though is the original 3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin. It’s really more of a thriller in a western setting to be honest. Just a great movie all around.

    As far as Spaghetti westerns, most people sight The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as the best, I’m a bigger fan of For a Few Dollars More personally. Honorable mentions to The Grand Duel and Navajo Joe.

    Speaking of Clint Eastwood, The Outlaw Josey Wales is probably the best western from his 70s-80s period….Pale Rider being a close second.

    For the modern era I really enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Open Range, Django Unchained/Hateful Eight, Slow West, hell I even loved The Lone Ranger remake that everyone shit on a while back, it’s a lot of fun. The Cohen Brothers remake of True Grit blows the original outta the water…I could go on and on…there’s just too many…

    P.S. Young Guns…..my favorite movie as a kid…”I’ll make ya famous”….

  4. Bolo

    ‘The Quick & the Dead’ gets pretty high rotation in my home. Hackman is an awesome villain and the cast of crazy gunfighter characters provides for a lot of entertainment.

    • Csm101

      That is a great one as well. I might like Hackman better in this than Unforgiven, and I love Lance Henrickson’s character. I heard there was an unrated cut or director’s cut of some sort. Have you seen that version? I believe I have just the R rated theatrical cut.

  5. I don’t really have a favorite Western. But, my favorite trivia about a western, is that Wyatt Earp worked as a consultant on John Ford’s 1928 western Hangman’s House. Marion Mitchell Morrison, a young actor in one of his first roles, spent quite a bit of time with Earp on the set, and enjoyed his many stories about the old west. A few years later, Morrison would be known as John Wayne.

  6. robert mcbride

    I’m not a fan of westerns, but The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the remake of True Grit, and of course, Blazing Saddles are favorites.

  7. Guy

    It’s TV instead of film, but Steve McQueen is the epitome of a western hero on Wanted: Dead or Alive. As a half hour show, it was definitely leaner, but also a little bit meaner than any other TV western of the era that I’ve seen. There are plenty of western films I like, love or respect for their craftsmanship, but it’s that show that I’d choose over anything else in the genre.

    If forced to discuss movies, I’d have to go glass half empty despite the topic and highlight one that didn’t live up to the great things I’d always heard. Said film is The Wild Bunch. I absolutely intend to watch it again someday, but it in no way landed with me the first time. It’s a film spoken of with such reverence that I feel like the fault must have been my own. Maybe I was in a bad mood that day. Maybe I hadn’t evolved a broad enough palette at the time. Maybe maybe maybe it’s a classic that simply isn’t for me. We all have a few of those.

  8. Tom Tuttle

    I like most of the films mentioned in the article and the comments. So for completion I just wan to add “Little Big Man” as on of my favourites.

  9. Many good ones mentioned! As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the Saturday matinee westerns on TV, that included any and all of the John Ford and Howard Hawks westerns with The Duke, loving particularly Rio Bravo. My parents probably wanted to kill me as I kept on playing that song “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” sung by Dean and Ricky with help from Walter Brennan. That being said, my favorite western, ironically made in the East, was Seven Samurai.

  10. Of non-revisionist westerns: High Noon. Honorable mentions to Winchester ’73, The Searchers, and Red River.

    Of revisionist westerns: The Wild Bunch.

    Of spaghetti westerns: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

    Of recent westerns: No Country for Old Men.

  11. charles contreras

    They Call Me Trinity and Trinity Is Still My Name, starring Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer. Both came out during the early seventies, both were kinda of a take off of the westerns that were made around that time. Currently available on dvd from Hen’s Tooth Video.

  12. JERP

    Shane, My Darling Clementine, Red River, Stagecoach, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Unforgiven (Eastwood), The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, The Man from Laramie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit (both original and Coen Bros. versions), The Stars in My Crown, Silver Lode, and several Randolph Scott movies that he did with director Bud Boetticher

  13. crimhead

    My favorite has to be “Once Upon a Time in the West” by Sergio Leone. From the languid but tense opening scenes, thru the intro to Henry Fonda as Frank, certainly one of the greatest bad guys the movies, all the way to the end of the movie, I get completely wrapped up in it every time I see it. Great characters, great actors, a compelling plot,
    Then, of course, there is Ennio Morricone’s score, which is magnificent.
    I never get tired of this movie.

  14. Scott David

    If TV instead of movies, I’d go with the Aventures of Brisco County J.R. With Bruce Campbell, that was a great western show, and Hey Dude. As far as movies go, I’m not a huge western fan but I like Christopher walken and Bruce Willis in Walter Hills Last man Standing.

  15. EM

    I’m not generally a fan of westerns per se, though I’ve seen a number that I enjoyed. My pick is a very famous film that, while definitely a western, is probably not thought of as one usually or primarily. That film is Old Yeller. If it doesn’t involve you and move you, I don’t know what would.

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